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Words about writing…with writers

In this month’s newsletter, I’m thrilled to have interviewed Joanna Rakoff about what it was like to adapt her own work for the silver screen. I also have some news to share, and books and podcasts to love on. Read on!

Before I had any books published, I wrote a few screenplays with my husband, the French filmmaker Diego Ongaro. We had some failures, but we also had enough successes to make me wonder whether I should consider adapting my own writing. Would I be too close to the material to alter it for the screen? What would it feel like to go backwards when my energy usually drives me forward? Is it good (or bad?) for an author to tinker with their backlist in this way?

Interview with Joanna Rakoff

We’re so lucky to have author Joanna Rakoff with us this month to tackle some of these questions. Joanna is the author of A Fortunate Age and the best-selling memoir My Salinger Year, which she adapted for a feature film forthcoming from Canadian director Philippe Falardeau. Joanna had so much wisdom and humor to impart about this experience that we’re dividing her advice into two separate editions. The first is here!

My understanding is that you were offered this opportunity in a somewhat circuitous fashion—you didn’t go after it yourself, nor did you have previous screenwriting experience. How did you decide that you could adapt your own material?

Only a few people in the world know this, but I initially wanted to go into film, to write and direct. I basically grew up at the movies. My father was a former actor, with a number of film and TV actor friends, and a huge film buff, and we went to the movies at least once a week, usually twice, and spent weekends watching old movies on TV. At one point—not long before the period chronicled in My Salinger Year—I actually completed an application for Columbia’s film school, recommendations and all, but at the last minute, I decided not to submit it. During the period in which I was completing that application, I worked, briefly, as a production assistant on a Barbra Streisand film and it was such a miserable experience that I thought, “I don’t actually want to do this.” (More on this in a moment, but I know, now, that film was an anomaly. Most sets are happier places!) I’m a somewhat introverted person and I realized that I was happier sitting at my desk, by myself, writing, rather than standing in the freezing cold for twenty-one hours, trying to get the perfect shot of Pierce Brosnan walking across 116th Street. The following fall, I took that application—this was back when applications were actual paper documents—and used white-out to doctor it, so that the box for “writing program” was checked, rather than the box for “film program.” My Statement of Purpose must have seemed very off to the admissions committee, but they accepted me anyway, and here we are.

But I never quite let go of the idea that I might, at some point, go into film. (Or television.)

When the rights to My Salinger Year were being auctioned, I talked with my film agent about the possibility of my writing the screenplay and she told me, in no uncertain terms, that producers are very wary of writers—meaning, novelists or memoirists or journalists—adapting their own material. The idea is, or was, that you’re too close to the material to be able to see how the story must change—sometimes veering from the facts, in the case of memoir or journalism—to make sense for the screen.

My literary agent, meanwhile, told me that she’d seen so many writers waste years and years trying to adapt their work—writing draft after draft, only to have the producers bring in an experienced screenwriter—fully derailing their literary careers. I had, in fact, seen such things happen myself. So I didn’t pursue the possibility at all. I did, however, find myself inclined toward producers and directors who made it clear that they wanted me to be as involved as possible. The brilliant director I eventually went with—Philippe Falardeau—has

adapted several plays for the screen and is very used to working with writers on their own material. (His most famous work, Monsieur Lazhar, is an adaptation of a one-man show.) He said to me, from the start, “I’m not a writer. I can put together screenplays. I tell stories. But I’ll need lots of input from you.” The idea was that he would, in his words, “take a stab at” writing a screenplay based on the book, consulting closely with me.

So, for about two years, he worked on the screenplay. Meaning, every few months, he’d send a draft to me. I’d read it, compile massive notes—on both big picture things, like the shape of the story, and smaller components, like the dialogue, and the veracity of the world (New York in the 1990s; the lives of young women)—which I’d then go over with my agent, and then either submit to him, or simply go over with him on the phone or in person. (I really understood what my literary agent meant when she said that she’d seen writers careers derailed. Even just this level of involvement took a huge amount of time and energy away from my new book, for which I’m under contract!)

Eventually, the feeling—from various production people—was that the script needed an “insider pass.” Meaning, the script was in a decent place, in terms of the big picture, but someone who really understood the world of the film—again, New York in the 1990s; the publishing industry and the literary world; and, maybe most importantly, the experiences and speech patterns of young women—needed to do a rewrite of the script. (Particularly before the casting director sent it to young actresses.)

Because I’d worked so closely with Philippe, for years—and learned so, so much from him about how a scene works, how a script functions, etc.—I felt quite confident I could do this. It had, honestly, been hard for me, throughout those years of working as a consultant, to not just go in and rewrite scenes.

What was the most unexpected thing about the process?
That idea, explained to me by my film agent, that writers are too attached to their own material to crack it open so that it works for the screen? For me, this wasn’t true at all. I loved, loved, LOVED the process of figuring out, for instance, how to externalize a lot of the internal drama in the book. And I loved the freedom that came from fictionalizing certain components of the story so that they worked better for film.

Thank you for joining us, Joanna! We can’t wait to hear more!

What I’m excited about this month:

I wrote an essay about Peggy Guggenheim’s relationship to her Judaism that I’m quite proud of for the Jewish Book Council—here, Peggy is shown with her family (and my young narrator) in the 1930s.

Additionally, the LA Review of Books published an interview between myself and THE AGE OF ENCHANTMENT’s Aaron Shulman that I’m glad to see out there. I loved doing a podcast with Lit Up Show’s Angela Ledgerwood about mothers, creativity, and going off and back

online. And finally, I did a class on nailing agent query letters for She Writes University that you can listen to online.

Lit Bytes!

What I’m loving now: The Family Secrets podcast by Dani Shapiro, especially her episode with Heavy author Kiese Laymon

What I’m reading now: A galley of Anna Wiener’s “Uncanny Valley”

What I’m reading next: a French thriller called “La Clé Usb” (The USB Key) by Jean-Philippe Toussaint

Where I’m touring next for COSTALEGRE:

Nov. 1-3: Minneapolis, MN for the
Wordsmith Conference!

Nov. 21: Litchfield, CT at the
Oliver Wolcott Library with Elissa Altman

Full list of events here.

More info on workshops and all other events on courtneymaum.com

See you out there in lit land! Big thanks to Roxanne Joncas for her technical assist with this month’s news!

My newest book is available for pre-order! We’re running a fun pre-order campaign with my local indie Oblong Books. Show them your pre-order love and I will go in the store and personalize a copy before it gets shipped!